My friend and I went to a zoo (that I don't wish to disclose) that we didn't know was not AZA accredited until after we went. The animals seemed generally okay, and there weren't any outward signs of problems, but there weren't many info plaques and they seemed to have a LOT of cheetahs, and there were those coin operated pellet feeders, which made us suspicious. When we got home we looked up stuff about it and we found some articles about sketchy incidents that occurred there. (1/2)
It was the first time I’d ever been to a non-AZA-accredated facility and I feel incredibly guilty over paying entrance fee and supporting them because enough of the stuff I eventually found about them made me not want to. The website for the zoo was professional and sleek, and so was the actual zoo’s outward appearance. The animals did not display behaviours that worried me, but now I know to look for the AZA seal, I’m still worried I’ll be fooled again. How can I make sure I’m not?
Well, that depends on why you feel fooled. Is it because they’re not AZA, or because you feel like their public front was covering up something bad, or because you just didn’t know what you paid to support?
Here’s the thing. AZA accredits the ‘best’ facilities, in the sense that they’re accrediting the more monetarily stable urban zoos who can afford to sink a ton of money into all the myriad requirements you need to get that accreditation. Yes, with that you get a pretty decent guarantee that a facility is following all the best practices and guidelines for animal care and welfare and education and conservation involvement (except, y’know, everywhere can have issues and I know of places that do). However, as much as AZA would like you believe that there are only two categories - “AZA” and “burning dumpster fires” - that straight up is not the reality of the field at this point. A facility not being AZA tells you some things about it, but it doesn’t tell you everything; they could not have the money to partake in conservation efforts to the level that AZA requires, they could be in the middle of the multi-year process of improving with the goal of being accreditation, or they could even have been previously accredited and chosen to split from the organization over politics or policy differences. I know examples of all of these in real life. So what becomes more important is really what other accreditations they might have and why they’d choose what they did… and as a member of the public, honestly, that’s really hard to parse and you’re not likely to be able to find access to that information.
So. What to do from there? If you want to go, go. Google it first next time - but even with that, you have to figure out what lens anything you find has been filtered through. Look at how old events are, look for patterns of events, try to find alternate sources with a different spin and see how things are presented before deciding to believe anything. See if it looks like anything you don’t like is recent, see if older things appear to have changed, that sort of thing. It’s important to remember that the zoo field has grown massively in the past couple of decades and that ethos of animal management is still evolving so things that were issues in the past are not guaranteed to be practices still in place today.
If you decide to go to a zoo you’re not sure about, do exactly what you did. Look around critically and ask questions about what you see. Talk to the staff and see how you feel about their responses. Ask them about accreditation status and why they made the choices they do. You can’t learn everything online so, honestly, I think visiting in person is the best way to decide if you want to support a facility in the future.
I don’t know if you got duped, without knowing the facility. If you saw a nicely upkept public side, animals that didn’t appear to be displaying behavioral problems, and the only things that were uncomfortable were history? Probably a pretty good chance you ended up at a decent facility.
(Cheetahs are one of the big endangered species conservation projects that is managed outside of AZA control, and their population is booming in captive settings recently, so I’m not surprised you saw a bunch).